A majority of my posts over the past couple of months have been concerned in one way or another with a possible transition to a freer and more equal society. This has been largely motivated by the diverse commentary of regular contributors, which is really helping to move my understanding forward. Although the connections between the various threads are quite clear in my own mind, and probably pretty clear to regular commentators, even some of the basic connections might be lost on occasional visitors. The purpose of this post is to summarize the major connections I perceive and my current position. There are disagreements on all these issues, and my own thinking is in flux as I continue to reflect on the various arguments being expressed. The quality of the commentary enhances the blog immeasurably. Thank you to all contributors.
What Would a Post Capitalist Society Entail?
Regular readers will be aware that I am influenced by Marx, especially Capital, Theories of Surplus Value, and Grundrisse. Nevertheless, when it comes to understanding how we might move forward from our present society to a post-capitalist one, I consider Marx to be of only limited relevance. He is helpful for understanding the logic of capital or, in other words, understanding capitalism on its own terms. He also identifies what would need to be eliminated from the current system to be completely beyond capitalism; namely, an end to the commodification of labor power and the wage labor relation. However, his work is of less help in showing how we could get from our current system to a post-capitalist one. He does provide a clear hint of what he thought, in broad terms, in Critique of the Gotha Program, but it is only sketchy and of limited use for us now in looking to the future.
In Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx’s notion of ‘lower form’ communism involves a system of labor certificates that ties income strictly to labor time except to the extent that there would be a physical surplus remaining for dependents (such as retirees, children, home parents), productive investment and a few other purposes. All labor time would be treated as equal. In exchange for the performance of a certain amount of labor time, workers would receive a certificate entitling them to a corresponding amount of real goods and services.
Marx’s notion of ‘higher form’ communism is a non-monetary system in which society has progressed to such a degree that each person contributes voluntarily what they can and receives what they need (“from each according to ability, to each according to need”). In such a society, there would be a complete separation of labor time and income.
It seems to me that in a few respects we have already advanced beyond lower form communism, while in most other respects we are far short of it. The public provision in many countries of free education, free health care, unemployment benefits or social insurance, and redistributive taxes and transfers all begin to separate labor time and income to an extent. Moving to lower form communism would actually be a backward step in this specific sense, because it would reinforce the notion that labor time and income must be strictly connected even though we have already moved beyond this level of consciousness to some degree under capitalism.
I have argued (e.g., here) that, if it were the social will, we would actually be able to progress a long way toward higher form communism under a fiat-money system. Apart from the monetary aspect, which diverges from Marx’s notion of a non-monetary economy, it would be possible for us to abide by the ideal “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. My reasoning is that fiat money, operated under a flexible exchange rate, enables any mix of private and public sector activity we might desire. The logic of capital could be operative to the extent we desired, or inoperative. Goods and services could be provided free or at positive prices in the proportion we came to prefer. In short, anything from laissez faire to the complete elimination of capital and the wage labor relation would be possible.
I think a revolution that, following Marx, attempted to institute lower form communism would be a backward step at least in the following two ways:
i) As mentioned already, income would be tied more strictly to labor time than it is at present, which would only further entrench the commodification of labor power. A labor-certificate system under purely state-owned industry would not be sufficient to end the wage labor relation, because workers would still be getting remunerated in exchange for labor time.
ii) Given the current state of collective consciousness, coercive measures more draconian than what we have now would be required to keep dissenters (including the old ruling class and much of the old upper middle class) obedient to the new system in which their labor time would suddenly be treated as equivalent to that of all other workers.
I have suggested that a more promising approach would be to start with a conscious consideration of our present situation, and its openings and possibilities. Marx himself wrote the following in his Critique of the Gotha Program:
What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.
Capitalism has developed a great deal since Marx wrote this passage. In doing so, it has created openings for progressive change, often out of developments that, in themselves, are negative. Decades-long mass unemployment, though awful in itself, makes us more accustomed to the idea that some people will receive income assistance without engaging in wage labor. Extreme inequality and outrageous bonuses for incompetent CEOs familiarize us with the idea that income and labor time need not always be connected. Capitalism promises freedom, liberty and equality before the law but then succeeds in delivering on these promises only in very limited ways, leaving us wanting more. These and many other developments under capitalism may raise consciousness or create opportunities for further social progress.
Creating the Preconditions for Freedom and Equality
Some commentators, even if sympathetic to my argument, object to what they see as nineteenth century thinking, such as framing the issues in terms of capitalism versus socialism or communism. Although, in my view, Marx’s categories are still helpful for understanding the logic of capital, I agree that it may be beneficial, when thinking about the future, to lose terms that may seem archaic and uninspiring to many people. Partly for this reason, I intend increasingly to frame the discussion more in terms of freedom and equality and other ideals our current system has encouraged us to embrace in various ways.
Another aspect that I am yet to consider in any depth is the challenges of environmental sustainability. Although previous posts hold implications that are relevant to this challenge, these implications remain to be properly integrated into the discussion. This is a challenge for future posts.
Placing the focus of discussion on freedom, equality, environmental sustainability and other social ideals may better reflect the openness that modern monetary systems provide in terms of social choice. The focus can be on how we might put in place some of the preconditions for a freer, more equal and sustainable society, whether that remains predominantly a market-based economy, leads increasingly toward a system of gift exchange, or involves primarily the distribution of free goods and services. In view of the recent disagreements that have emerged in the blogosphere over policy and politics, this may also enable a more inclusive framing of the discussion, although avoiding policy questions will be impossible in dealing with the issues I hope we can address here and at similarly focused blogs.
My current thinking (e.g., here) is that genuine freedom would involve an increasing separation of labor time and income, but only to the extent and at the pace that people wished for this to occur. This is a contentious point with which several regular contributors take issue and there is still much to thrash out. My position is that the least coercive way to facilitate this progression (though still only an early step) would be to:
i) Recognize that anybody who wants to participate in the wage labor relation should be able to do so. This would ensure that nobody was compelled to leave the wage labor relation against their will. (Job Guarantee.)
ii) Allow individuals who are already keen to leave the wage labor relation to do so by providing everybody with an unconditional basic income. (Basic Income Guarantee.)
I have argued that the implementation of these two policies would then be likely to have beneficial flow-on effects. In particular, workers would have greater freedom to take jobs they found worthwhile, even if they paid little or nothing. This, in turn, would give enterprises offering meaningful employment a competitive advantage over enterprises that did not.
The relevant literature suggests that monetary incentives are most effective in the case of menial or unpleasant jobs and much less so in the case of creative, challenging, intellectual or autonomous roles. This seems significant, because it is menial, repetitive or uncreative tasks that are easiest to mechanize. If an unconditional basic income were introduced, some workers would probably opt out of lousy jobs, preferring free time or lower paid but more fulfilling work. Employers offering lousy jobs would find that they needed to offer higher wages. This might attract some workers. It might make a reorganization of production or mechanization more viable in comparison (which, in my view, would be a good thing). It might mean that those roles disappeared altogether. Or, if the roles were socially necessary, it might mean the mechanization of the productive activity would be subsidized or provided in the public sector, if this was the political will.
The dynamic set in play would make possible an increasing separation of labor time and income. However, the connection would by no means disappear in the foreseeable future because, given current attitudes, many people would prefer to earn much more income than is provided by the unconditional basic income and might still be motivated more by money than other considerations. Even so, it would allow people to opt for free time as they became ready for it, along with the lower personal income that this entailed.
The more that productivity advanced, the higher real living standards in general would tend to rise, including the level of the basic income. The quality of life would also rise in many ways that might remain unmeasured because of all the non-monetary activity occurring on a voluntary or gift-exchange basis outside the wage labor relation. Notions of value based on labor time would become less relevant, requiring more appropriate conceptions of value to include the wide array of non-monetary factors contributing to individual and social well being.
True Progress Requires a Withering Away of Coercive Measures
True social progress is only possible to the extent people are ready to embrace it. Otherwise coercion is required far beyond simply an enforced tax obligation and the occasional resort to the state’s monopoly on violence. Coerced behavior is not reflective of real social progress. The policy approach I am suggesting seems to offer the most freedom of choice for everybody while still setting in play a progressive dynamic. It forces no one to stop seeking high incomes and wealth, but makes it viable for others to live more modestly if they wish.
To the extent people took the latter option, this would also help in terms of the burden we place on the environment, since these individuals would voluntarily be opting to leave a smaller ecological footprint. To the extent environment-conscious enterprises were advantaged through job applicants being able to exercise their preference for jobs engaged in sustainable production, this would also help to address the issue.
In closing, I should reiterate that I am not suggesting that this line of policy is an answer to everything. The focus has been quite narrow, leaving out of consideration all kinds of important issues such as the public-private mix, the role of regulation, the amount of income redistribution, and many other issues. Nevertheless, I do think that this policy approach would enable us to take a significant step in the right direction while also being compatible with the pursuit of a wide array of alternative social objectives.